Live Updates: After Channel Drownings, France and U.K. Trade Blame and Promises
Children and a pregnant woman were among at least 27 people who died after a migrant boat capsized. The disaster has intensified the fractious debate about how to curb perilous small-boat crossings between the two countries.
Migrants from another boat were rescued by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and brought to Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England, on Wednesday. Credit…Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The day after at least 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel when their flimsy inflatable boat capsized during the perilous voyage, the leaders of France and England vowed to crack down on migrant crossings even as they offered a fractious response to one of the deadliest disasters in recent years involving migrants trying to cross the narrow waterway separating the two countries.
French officials confirmed that children and a pregnant woman were among those who had drowned, as crews worked in the cold and wind to recover bodies and to try to identify those who died. Two people, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia.
The tragedy was a stark reminder that five years after authorities dismantled a sprawling migrant camp in Calais, both countries are still struggling to handle migrants in the area.
France and Britain have long accused each other of not doing enough to curb attempts to cross the Channel. After the tragedy on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said greater efforts should be made to allow joint patrols along the French coast.
And President Emmanuel Macron of France said he expected the British “to cooperate fully and to abstain from using this dramatic situation for political means.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Macron added that France was in any case only a “country of transit” for migrants who wanted to reach Britain.
“In a way, we are holding the border for the British,” he said, adding that most of the migrants who reach the area around Calais did not want asylum in France despite offers from French authorities.
The two leaders spoke by phone late on Wednesday and said in statements afterward that they had agreed to step up efforts to prevent migrants from making the journey across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Under an agreement between the two nations, Britain pays France to clamp down on crossings through surveillance and patrols.
Mr. Johnson said that he was “shocked and appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the Channel.” But, he added: “I also want to say that this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way.”
Mr. Macron called for an immediate tightening of border controls and an increased crackdown with other European nations on people smugglers.
“France won’t let the Channel become a graveyard,” he said in a statement.
The drownings came only a few days after French and British authorities had reached an agreement to do more to stem the number of people taking to the sea.
Attempts to reach Britain in small boats have increased in recent years as the authorities have cracked down on the smuggling of asylum seekers inside trucks crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel in small boats and 7,800 migrants had been saved from shipwrecks, according to French officials. Before Wednesday, seven people had died or disappeared so far this year.
Many migrants — who are often from countries in Africa or the Middle East like Iraq and Eritrea — consider Britain an ideal destination because English is spoken, because they already have family or compatriots there, and because it can be relatively easy to find off-the-books work.
But the recent increase in attempts to cross the English Channel by boat reflects a shift in how migrants are traveling, not in how many, according to migration experts and rights groups, who say that, overall, asylum applications in Britain are down this year.
The crossings have become another element in the worsening relations between France and Britain, which have also clashed over fishing rights and trading checks after Britain’s departure from the European Union, as well as over a submarine alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States that undermined a previous French deal.
On a clear day, it is possible to see the white cliffs of Dover from France. The English coast can appear tantalizingly close and for years, it has drawn migrants who have already traversed Europe and hope to reach Britain where they believe better opportunities await.
Such is the promise that drove nearly three dozen people, including men, women and children, to set off on what French officials described as an “extremely fragile” inflatable boat into the strong currents and the freezing, choppy waters that divide the two nations.
It is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world and the short distance belies the dangers inherent in the crossing. The perils are made greater by the fact that many of those attempting the journey are assisted by smugglers who pack them onto tiny dinghies, which are overstuffed and unbalanced.
Gerald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said that the authorities believed about 30 people were crowded onto a frail vessel that he compared to “a pool you blow up in your garden.”
A report in the French news media said that the migrant boat was struck by a container ship, although French authorities said the circumstances of the disaster were still under investigation.
On Thursday, Mr. Darmanin told RTL radio said that many crossings started in the same way.
“Dozens, sometimes hundreds of migrants, take a beach by storm to leave very quickly, often at high tide, to reach England in makeshift vessels,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, a fishing vessel alerted maritime authorities that several people had been spotted in the waters off the coast of Calais. Ships and helicopters soon began a search and rescue operation.
Two people, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia. The boat itself was discovered completely deflated, officials said. It was still unclear as of Thursday morning how many people might still be missing.
And the work of identifying those who died was likely to be complicated by the fact that many migrants dispose of any identification papers before making the crossing. The prosecutor’s office in the northern French city of Lille, which is investigating the tragedy, said on Thursday that the dead included 17 men, seven women, two boys and a girl. It was still unclear on Thursday where all of the migrants in the group were from.
French officials on Thursday urged European countries to work together on dismantling human smuggling networks after 27 migrants died trying to cross the English Channel, but the country’s interior minister also singled out Britain over its policies toward undocumented migrants on British soil, calling them too lenient.
“Britain and France must work together,” the interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, told RTL radio, adding that smugglers who preyed on the hopes of migrants, asking for thousands of euros in exchange for unsafe passage on flimsy vessels, were most responsible for the situation.
But Mr. Darmanin also criticized the “attractiveness” of the British labor market, which he said was too loosely policed. “Everyone knows that there are over a million undocumented immigrants in Britain, and British employers use that work force,” he said.
He said that France deported many more migrants than Britain, though Britain had both a larger overall population and a greater number of undocumented migrants. “There is a bad handling of immigration in Britain,” he added.
Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, said on Thursday that five people had been arrested at the French-Belgian border on suspicion of smuggling material bought in Germany for use in crossing attempts.
He also argued that migrants often crossed the border from Belgium just hours before trying to cross the English Channel, and called for European partners to step up their cooperation in dismantling people- smuggling networks.
France has arrested over 1,500 smugglers since January, according to Mr. Darmanin, but their networks operate across borders and require tight cooperation between neighboring country.
Mr. Darmanin said, for example, that French authorities suspected the vessel that sank on Wednesday had been bought in Germany by a smuggler whose car had German license plates. That smuggler, and four others, have been arrested in connection with the shipwreck.
Sixty to 70 percent of the migrants attempting to reach Britain arrived from Germany or the Netherlands and then went through Belgium into France to attempt a quick crossing, Mr. Darmanin added.
“Smugglers pick them up and, over a couple days, try to bring them to the beach,” he said. “It’s an international problem.”
Mr. Darmanin said there were 15 times fewer migrants in the area than there were 15 years ago, with about 1,000 in Calais and another 1,000 in the area around Dunkirk and Grande-Synthe. The French authorities distribute about 2,200 meals to migrants every day, he said, and had relocated 12,000 of them since January.
But another French official, Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration, said the authorities had recently faced a surge in sea crossings — up to 50 per night on some occasions.
“There are more passages in the English Channel today than there are in the Aegean Sea,” Mr. Leschi said in an interview, referring to the sea between Turkey and Greece, which many refugees crossed at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015.
Mr. Leschi said that he could “not recall a tragedy as important” as the deaths on Wednesday, but that monitoring the dozens of miles of coastline from where migrants set off to the Channel was unrealistic, as it would require “tens of thousands of police officers.”
CALAIS, France — Emmanuel D. Malbah learned about the migrant tragedy in the waters of the English Channel on Thursday, but it has not changed his own plans to try a perilous crossing.
“I don’t believe that I’ll die,” the 16-year-old from Liberia said. “I believe I’ll get to England.”
For now, he has been thwarted.
Before the sun rose on Tuesday, he joined other migrants in what has become something of a ritual along the French coast, rushing to the beach from makeshift camps and jumping aboard small boats.
“The lights on the opposite side,” said Mr. Malbah on Thursday, “I could see them. It gave me enthusiasm, it gave me courage.”
In freezing temperatures, Mr. Malbah and the other migrants, most of them from Sudan, inflated a dinghy they were carrying. But then more migrants joined, Mr. Malbah said, and soon there were too many for the boat. The engine would not start. The French police, likely alerted by the shouting, soon appeared and slashed the dinghy.
Mr. Malbah fled, and his chance of reaching England that night had vanished.
The scene, which he described from a muddy camp near the beaches of Calais, is one that has become all too familiar on France’s northern coast.
Thousands of migrants have already tried to cross from France into England this year, and an increasing number of them are turning to the sea for the voyage on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, facing frigid waters and deceptive weather.
On Wednesday, French authorities said that at least 27 migrants had drowned in the English Channel after their boat capsized. The tragedy, which officials said is one of the deadliest accidents involving migrants attempting the crossing, has shocked the public on both sides of the Channel.
Thousands of migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, have been living for years in and around Calais, regularly trying to reach England, attracted by a country with a flexible job market for undocumented migrants and where English is spoken.
Many live in makeshift camps near the beaches, under blue tarps exposed to the changing weather. Some have gathered enough money to pay smugglers and attempt the sea crossing. Others, like Mr. Malbah, a fisherman, know how to drive a boat and can therefore cross free.
Other camps are scattered on the outskirts of Calais, near the main roads, for those who can only afford to smuggle inside trucks crossing the Channel Tunnel. But that has become increasingly difficult as the French authorities have surrounded the entrance of the tunnel with fences and CCTV cameras in recent years, and increased checks on trucks.
Still, some who cannot afford a sea crossing — which often involves paying for someone to steer the boat — try the truck route.
“People here have no money,” Sassd Amian, a 25-year-old Sudanese refugee, said as he walked back to a small camp in the early morning. He said he tried to stow away inside a truck every morning, before dawn.
When trucks drive around a roundabout, on their way to the Channel Tunnel, their trailers detach slightly and leave room to slip between the axles, Mr. Amian said. But doing so is dangerous. Several migrants have lost legs and some have died, according to humanitarian organizations.
But Mr. Amian said he was not afraid, having traveled a long way from Sudan to France, passing through Egypt, Libya and Italy over the past four years, exposing himself to many dangers.
“Death is nothing new in this life,” he said.
The barbs exchanged by British and French ministers over Wednesday’s tragedy in the English Channel were a sign of how hard both sides have found it to tackle small-boat migration. But they also reflect growing tensions between the two countries on a far wider range of issues.
Britain and France have been at odds ever since Britain left the European Union two years ago. They have quarreled over fishing rights, over the safety of a British coronavirus vaccine and over a submarine alliance that united Britain, Australia and the United States but left an outraged France on the sidelines. At one point, the fishing fracas prompted both to deploy naval ships to Jersey, leading a London tabloid to bluster, “Our New Trafalgar.”
Domestic politics is playing a part. For Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, ginning up a cross-channel dispute appeals to his pro-Brexit base. For President Emmanuel Macron, the tensions are useful in his bid for re-election in France, given that he faces a challenge from the nationalist right.
At heart, many of the clashes are over who will write the first draft of history: France is determined to show that Brexit has not worked; Britain is desperate to show that it has.
Sylvie Bermann, who recently served as France’s ambassador to Britain, likened Brexit to a divorce and said it was only natural that it would take time for the wounds to heal. Each side is nursing those wounds in different ways.
Mr. Johnson, she said, has made France a scapegoat for problems that were aggravated by Brexit, like the shortage of truck drivers that has caused filling stations to run out of gas. Mr. Macron, who was stung when Australia jilted France for the submarine alliance with Britain and the United States, wants to show that France is stronger inside the European Union than it would be alone, as Britain is.
“We didn’t ask them to become a third country,” Ms. Bermann said. “We would have liked them to stay. They made their choice, and we respect it. But now they can’t enjoy both the advantages and a total freedom.”